Here are the phases businesses have gone through in returning employees to the office, with a focus on the challenges encountered and emerging solutions.
Demands on office space have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. For some employees, remote work was never feasible and increasingly large numbers of employees found themselves fatigued by remote work and desiring a return to the workplace - at least on a part time basis.
As larger numbers of employees sought to access the office, organisations faced numerous challenges. Ensuring social distancing guidelines and track and trace protocols are followed requires cooperation from multiple stakeholders and considerable planning.
This timeline of events can be divided into three distinct phases, summarised below.
Phase 1: Essential workers
As lockdown orders were mandated around the world it became quickly apparent to organisations and employees alike that some people simply could not complete their work from home. The very nature of their roles demanded access to the office. Out of necessity, these employees were the first to return to the office.
As these employees constitute less than 5% of the workforce it was a relatively simple process to put social distancing measures in place and assign each employee a fixed space to work. There was minimal impact and risk to the business to manage office use.
Phase 2: Employees with remote work challenges
For some, working from home was not feasible due to circumstances in their private lives. Those with young families, house sharing, limited private space to work, limited access to wifi or technology tools struggled to maintain productivity whilst working remotely.
This group needed to be in the office in order to work effectively. Due to the social distancing measures already in place for those in Phase 1, it was possible for them to return to the workplace with minimal complexity.
Organisations were able to introduce internal systems with relative ease to manage site occupancy, and with the vast majority of employees working remotely it was possible to assign those that needed a fixed workstation.
Track and trace protocols were established and easy to maintain due to the relatively small number of employees coming into contact with one another.
Phase 3: Employees choosing to return to the office
As lockdowns eased over the summer of 2020, businesses faced by far the most significant organisational challenge as increasing numbers of employees chose to return to the office.
Working remotely on a full time basis became increasingly challenging for many with most wanting to work in the office at least 2-3 days a week. Replicating the social aspect of the office, maintaining work life balance and decreasing motivation were some of the primary drivers which led employees back into the office.
Maintaining social distancing, allocating workspaces, cleaning and scheduling work rotations as occupancy rates increased put a huge strain on organisations. To ensure employee safety, organisations needed a way to monitor and manage who, how and when people were in the office.
This required involvement from multiple stakeholders. Line managers had to approve requests, HR teams required a 360 view of who had shared spaces in order to enforce isolation protocols should symptoms present themselves, and workplace teams developed rotation based systems in order to safely allow larger numbers of people to access the workspace.
How to manage space occupancy levels
Organisations are now leaning towards leveraging workplace data, such as occupancy and booking insights, to manage work rotations and keep within social distancing occupancy limits. They can give Facilities, HR, IT and other key stakeholders:
An overview of the number of people in the office or across multiple buildings
Understand how workspaces are utilised
Understand what changes are needed to make sure the office remains a safe and productive environment for employees
Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen employees increasingly desire a return to the office, 17% more people are journeying into the office now than during the first lockdown. This trend is likely to continue as increasingly large numbers of employees reach their remote work limit, and businesses should be preparing for this.
Workplace occupancy can be expected to rise further, with people desiring to be in the office for at least 2-3 days a week. In the United States, 75% of executives anticipate that at least 50% of employees will be back on site by July 2021. However, the nature of the office will have to change in order to accommodate emerging flexible workstyles.
Across the globe organisations are rethinking their real estate and workplace strategy - 87% of executives expect to make changes to their real estate strategy within the coming year.
Planning for this increase and introducing the systems necessary to ensure your workplace is safe and fit for purpose now is vital in order to guarantee a smooth transition into hybrid workstyles as offices re-open throughout 2021 and continue to evolve to meet the needs and requirements of employees.